Bridging the Gulf with Reasonable Accommodation
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Bridging the Gulf with Reasonable Accommodation

Todd S. Hutton, President, Utica College

In a recent interview with Dick Hersh, the President of Trinity College, Katherine Grayson asked whether there is sufficient time to save liberal arts education. Although her reference was specific to the completion of a study documenting learning outcomes in 1,200 students across the country, the question itself is both intriguing and alarming. It is intriguing because it suggests that at least some people in our society believe that a centuries-old tradition is at the precipice of collapse. It is alarming because social and market forces may indeed be at work, reacting to perceptions of rigidity and irrelevancy in the liberal arts.

I would answer Katherine Grayson by saying that the liberal arts do not need saving. They need defining, clarifying, interpreting, revising, and adapting, but not saving.

I will devote little time in this paper to exclaiming the benefits of a liberal arts education. Volumes have been written on this subject over the decades, and especially during those times when the value of the liberal arts cycles into the public consciousness. I will, instead, focus my attention on the two other objectives of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) Symposium: 1) The problems that hamper a more effective relationship between the liberal arts and business, and 2) those action steps that can make a difference, that is, create a more symbiotic relationship between the liberal arts and business.

The first problem, and one that we must acknowledge at the onset of the symposium, is that the liberal arts are not monolithic. Our use of the term makes it seem so, but the limitations of labels and our inability to express the many differences and nuances among different conceptions of liberal study obscure the fact that there is no one definition of what constitutes the liberal arts. For example, What should belong in the "core" curriculum of a college? Does a liberal arts curriculum include business economics? Can a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre be considered a liberal arts degree or are the only "legitimate" liberal arts degrees Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in an arts and science discipline? Questions such as these illustrate the different perspectives on the nature of the liberal arts, and institutions have answered such questions in many different ways. A century ago, the disciplines of sociology and psychology were stepchildren of the arts and sciences. It was only in the last half of the last century that computer science found its way into liberal arts curricula. As society has evolved, so has the definition of the liberal arts.

The notion of the liberal arts is also confounded by the imprecise and evolving classifications we have for colleges and universities, as well as by the market decisions that determine the use of the words "college" or "university." Take, for example, the classifications defined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Prior to 1994, the Foundation classified baccalaureate institutions that awarded more than half of the their degrees in the arts and sciences as Liberal Arts Colleges I & II, with the distinction between the two based upon the composite SAT score of entering first-year students. In 1994 the Foundation changed the name of the classifications to "Baccalaureate (Liberal Arts) Colleges I" and "Baccalaureate Colleges II." Institutions included in either of these classifications had to award 40 percent or more of their baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts fields. In other words, an institution could award 60 percent of its undergraduate degrees in professional fields but still be classified as a liberal arts college. With the most recent revision in 2001, Carnegie returned to the 50 percent threshold and revised the terms to "Baccalaureate Colleges-Liberal Arts" and "Baccalaureate Colleges-General." If we add to the equation the fact that a liberal arts college with a traditional arts and science curriculum (whatever that is), one master's degree, and 1,200 students can call itself a university; a college with a medical school may call itself a college; and a college with eight master's degrees and a two doctorates cannot (at least in one state) call itself a university, it is no wonder there may be some confusion, and even qualms, among general public about what might constitute a liberal arts education. While the issues of classification and market-induced labeling do not speak directly to the question of the definition and content of the liberal arts, they do help frame the context for a dialogue about the relationship between the liberal arts and business.

A third problem relates closely to the question of definition. It seems that there is a need for academic and business discussants to ask the question, How much of the liberal arts is enough to call a student's course of study a liberal arts education? With regional accrediting bodies requiring that general education constitute a substantial portion of a student's course of study, whether at small "liberal arts" colleges or major research universities, can we say that most students today are receiving a liberal arts education? Or is it a matter that some receive a "pure" liberal education, that is, general education and a liberal arts major and minor, as opposed to general education and a career-related major with either a liberal arts or vocational minor or additional courses in the major? I agree with Joan Stark and Malcolm Lowther who insisted fifteen years ago that liberal and professional study need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, the demands of the world in which we live today require new ways of thinking about old divisions between the liberal arts and professional programs. Stark and Lowther put it aptly, "The crux of today's educational problem is how to integrate liberal and professional study effectively, building upon the best that each has to offer." There are numerous obstacles to achieving this lofty goal, not the least of which is the question of the liberal arts definition. Stark and Lowther found, unsurprisingly, that professional studies faculty and liberal arts faculty tended to define the liberal arts differently.

It has been my experience in recent years that the differences rest primarily in the epistemology of the liberal arts, although I suspect that my own liberal arts faculty would take issue with me on this statement. Certainly professional curricula have appropriated language and goals related to skills, attitudes, and sensibilities that were once the domain of the liberal arts. Stated simply, it might be said that where professional study was once about learning how to "do" and liberal arts was once about learning how to "think," the professions have made a concerted effort to bring "doing" and "thinking" closer together within their own curricula. A look at the newly adopted goals of Utica College's revised business curriculum and at the goals of other professional programs such as physical therapy reveals learning objectives that we once reserved for the liberal arts. For example, we expect business majors to develop a capacity for critical thinking (e.g., incisiveness, skepticism), the ability to think broadly, to work outside the confines of the customary, and to master skills of analysis and synthesis through research. We also expect them to understand and respond positively to diversity, to understand and apply ethical principles and principles of social responsibility, to understand the challenges and opportunities of globalism (e.g., interdependent economies), and to demonstrate competency in verbal and written communication. One might say that these goals sound like a liberal arts education, with content being the primary differentiator between a business curriculum and a liberal arts major.

With knowledge expanding exponentially and with spirited debates continuing about the nature and content of the liberal arts-fueled in part by arguments a decade and a half ago in such works as The Closing of the American Mind and Cultural Literacy-it is apparent that questions about the definition of the liberal arts will not be answered any time soon . We must therefore ask ourselves whether the need to develop a more symbiotic relationship between the liberal arts and business is more a question of human will-particularly on the part of faculty and academic administrators-than it is a question of knowledge and skills. If the problem does indeed revolve around the former, then the "action steps that can make a difference" will need to revolve around strategies designed to engage liberal arts faculty and business leaders in dialogue and mutual efforts to support the integration of liberal and professional learning.

Among the actions steps that may be worth CIC's consideration:

  1. Learn from the work of the University of Michigan's Professional Preparation Network and from the faculty at other institutions like Syracuse University. Initiatives such as these may offer insights to strategies that can bridge the liberal arts-business gulf.

  2. Following the Symposium, present the results and schedule further dialogue with academic deans and presidents at their respective CIC institutes in November and January.

  3. Develop an agreement and alliance with a national organization such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to sponsor symposia in cities throughout the country where CIC institutions are located. The symposia would have as a focus 1) dialogue among liberal arts faculty and business leaders with the goal of developing better understanding of each other's professional values and goals, definitions of the liberal arts, and existing intersections between the purposes and outcomes of liberal arts curricula and business practice; and 2) identification of concrete and specific ways that faculty and business leaders can bridge the perceived gulf between liberal arts curricula and engagement in business enterprise by alumni of the liberal arts.

  4. Engage organizations like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) to examine the liberal arts components of business education and to co-sponsor the symposia with the Chamber of Commerce.

It has been said that overcoming physical barriers for people with disabilities is really a matter of overcoming attitudinal barriers. It is the same with the disaffection between the liberal arts and business. And the solution is the same: reasonable accommodation, in spirit and practice.

Grayson, Katherine, "Liberal Ed in Crisis," in University Business, January 2003, 14-19.

Stark, Joan S. and Malcolm A. Lowther. Strengthening the Ties That Bind: Integrating Undergraduate Liberal and Professional Study, Report of the Professional Preparation Network, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI: The Regents of the University of Michigan, 1988.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987; and Hirsch, Jr., E.D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.


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